Malarkey and Mulally

April 16, 2007

An old public relations adage says feed the press or they’ll bite you. A lesser known corollary says – feed them too much malarkey and they’ll bite you as well.

Alan Mulally, Ford’s rookie president and chief executive officer, proved the veracity of both as the result of a now infamous appearance at the New York Auto Show opening breakfast recently.

On a chilly Wednesday morning in April, Mulally told a tale about preventing President Bush from blowing up a hydrogen-powered Edge hybrid by grabbing Bush’s arm and then directing an electrical extension cord to the correct inlet during a White House event.

At the time, the assembled and bored media warmly received this irreverent story. Other than the laughter, its immediate effect deflected a serious question about whether Ford actually stopped a hybrid program at Volvo.

Big problem with the deflection though -- it, eventually, proved a lie.

Up to now, the media chatter about Mulally mostly ran to fulsome, even as Ford results deteriorated. Mulally has the Irish gift of gab, and deliberately and carefully sought out media at both public and private events. He even took to calling media at home to discuss their latest pieces. It disarmed some tough critics.

“Nice guy. Likeable. Charming. Willing to listen.” The media shorthand continued unabated in the pressroom at the New York show after a speech that was widely judged as being devoid of news. The media moved on to reporting Mulally endorsed his executive team, a product lineup that in aggregate continued to lose share and the latest turnaround plan that had thus far failed to stop record levels of red ink at the beleaguered auto maker. If they reported anything at all. Yawn.

And there it sat until the Detroit News' Business Insider column reported the malarkey three days later. It was instantaneously seized upon in the larger media and Web world by people with agendas ranging from merely comic to politically partisan or actively hostile to President Bush. So news did result, albeit delayed news poking fun at President Bush. Moreover, news that moved into the big league world of Washington politics that automakers need to manipulate behind the scenes. Oops, Ford’s president was caught in Washington’s hostile crossfire.

Another problem, er, P.R. challenge, then arose.

The event in question was a White House photo op and therefore widely recorded. MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann upped the stakes when it showed the alleged incident was a figment of Mulally’s imagination. The actual footage quickly spread to the Web - the World Wide Web.

P.R. adage: don’t lie. Be economical with the truth, but never get caught in a lie.

More controversy. More media. Mainstream versus bloggers. Partisans galore.

The only vaguely similar automotive/political tempest I recall was the president of General Motors appearing before a Senate committee and publicly apologizing for hiring prostitutes to proposition Ralph Nader in an attempt to discredit him while opposing Washington-generated safety regulation that arose in part from Nader’s book Unsafe at Any Speed.

Another P.R. adage. When you’re in a hole, stop digging. Shut the story down.

No spontaneous apology to hundreds of media this time: In a carefully scripted statement released to Reuters a week after the actual offense Mulally said, "I tried to tell a joke about it and proved I am no Jimmy Kimmel. It never occurred to me that it would get such wide play or be taken seriously."

A Ford spokesperson claimed that Mulally’s malarkey originated in his mind from a video clip on ABC-TV's Jimmy Kimmel Live show. It was a joke about Bush blowing himself up by plugging the electrical cord in the wrong outlet. Funny perhaps, but not technically feasible, and now unfortunate given pending regulation of CO2 and fuel economy in Washington.

Still another P.R. adage: If you don’t want to be quoted, don’t be quotable.

All this is actually an amusing diversion. (Unless you’re doing damage control in the P.R. department.) The real issue at Ford Motor Company remains survival and Mulally’s ability to deliver it. Several hand picked management teams of Chairman William Ford have failed to stop what looks to be a slow descent into bankruptcy. Analysts continue to have grave doubts about the company’s future. The stock is languishing; operating loses mounting.

And Mulally says he is sticking with the plan?

The upshot is the media lovefest surrounding Mulally is now officially over. He crossed the line and too many people know of the prevarication. Media skepticism will grow from private to public. It’s going to take results, not malarkey for Mulally to prove his real worth. The former Boeing executive earned $28,183,476 since jumping to Ford last September. Nothing funny here for shareholders after a record $12.7 billion loss last year and profits not predicted by Mulally until 2009.

There’s a manufacturing summit among the Big Three makers in Washington this June. Mulally is scheduled to attend and speak to a luncheon of Democratic Senators.

Betcha this time there’s a script with a carefully crafted anecdote. And he sticks to it.—by Robert Ahl

Mulally: Turnaround, Jaguar on Track—TheCarConnection.com

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